Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Dresden Frauenkirche

I grew up Protestant in a town that was 80% Catholic. Religious affiliation was the primary identity. From a Protestant perspective, I suffered from multiple personality disorder - Baptist, Congregational, Lutheran, Episcopal in turn. I prefer to say simply that I was “searching.” Others would say (they'd be wrong) I was simply climbing the social ladder.

I also went to mass every morning in lent with my Catholic friends before school, was fascinated by the Latin, and actually had the mass memorized at one time. I felt the switch to the vernacular as a personal attack, even though I had left organized religion behind by that time. Not so much a religious thing as an aesthetic one. Like replacing Meissen China with Melmac.

Religious differences were often discussed. We spoke of Baptists as people who wouldn’t have sex because somebody might see them and think they were dancing. Of Methodists as working class, Episcopalians as ruling class, Presbyterians as people who were Episcopalians from the waist up and Baptists from the waist down.

One of the things all the protestant denominations agreed on was that the papists were wrong wrong wrong about their worship of Mary. Catholics insisted they didn't "worship" Mary, they merely venerated her. But that explanation just didn’t fly. The Italian women I worked with in the factories of my home town would wear garlic around their neck and crawl under tables whenever we had one of those fierce New England summer storms, clutch their rosaries and whimper for Mary to save them.

"Our Lady" was a quintessentially catholic thingie. No Protestant worth his salt would have any part of it. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, the Black Madonna of Poland, Catholic examples of the corruption of Christianity all. There’s even a word for it: mariolatry, parallel with idolatry.

I kind of like the idea that you can get to a boy through his mother, but even as a kid, one of the reasons I couldn’t follow my friends into the Catholic Church despite wanting to wear gorgeous dresses and sniff the incense was a sermon I heard once by a priest who was telling kids how smart it was to get Mary to talk to Jesus for you. Curious, that. Is that because women are easier pushovers than men? What strange birds, these Mary worshippers.

If you grew up in a more cosmopolitan world, perhaps with Zoroastrians and Wiccans and worshipers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you may have more sophisticated ways to circle the wagons and create a “them” to disparage. But in our small cultural New England island all we had was Catholics and Protestants to work with. So we made the most of the distinction. And if all this is alien to you and you think I’m making it up, check out this book by a guy named G. P. Dwyer called Protestants and Our Lady. Evidence of Protestant aversion to the veneration of Mary is not hard to find. There’s the question, “Does concentrating on the Virgin Mary distract us from God and from Jesus?” on a defensive catholic site, for example, and the answer begins “This is a common complaint of Protestants, but…

And for those of you who like religious soap opera, there is this literary gem which illustrates how the veneration of Mary can convert Protestants.

I was in Dresden soon after the East opened up, sitting in a Starbuck’s – or maybe a McDonald’s, and looking out at a pile of rubble, directly across the street. I saw a sign saying that they were collecting money to rebuild the cathedral, something unthinkable in the days of the DDR. The rebuilding has an interesting history. Among its sponsors are the people of Coventry, in Britain, and the son of one of the British bombers responsible for the destruction of Dresden on February 13, 1945 made the gilded cross that went on top of the dome of the new cathedral. All this against tremendous opposition. Many argue the money would be better spent, in this now largely secular country, on other things.

The February 1 edition of The New Yorker has an article on Dresden by George Packer, who refers to Dresden as “the Blanche DuBois of German cities – violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence.” The Germans made a TV serial in 2005 called Dresden where the final scene in Part I takes place in the cathedral in Dresden. It’s a big deal, this rebuilding.

But, to get back to the Protestant/Catholic divide I grew up with, what do I find when reading about the reconstruction of the cathedral in Dresden? It's called the Frauenkirche - Church of Our Lady. A Lutheran church! How is that possible? And while I was looking for an answer, what should pop up but the fact that the also very Lutheran cathedral in Copenhagen is also called Vor Frue Kirke – the Church of Our Lady. And I learn that it's a "sister church" to the one in Dresden.

The explanation for the name “Our Lady” is simple. The church was built and named before the Reformation. The question is why the name wasn’t changed in the Reformation. All the information I can find on the subject was some comment in passing that “the name was retained.” No discussion of the theological implications.

This will mean nothing to modern people who couldn’t give a rodent’s posterior about the whole subject. As my friend Jerry once said, “Oh, look. The Catholics and the Protestants are getting back together now that it no longer matters.”

For me, it turns out, it's sort of like finding out Jesus was an African-American or Santa Claus was gay. Not a problem. But definitely a surprise.

I say again, not the most consequential issue in the world. Not even close. But a nice little illustration that new things pop up all the time and the learning goes on, even in these advanced years.

If you’re still reading, click here for the German site Frauenkirche in Dresden and get a little Bach in your life. Plus a view of what was lost by the bombing of Dresden – and has now been regained.

And for a touristy view of the peculiar Dresden architectural style, click here.

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